The On Being Project

The New Better Off

Don’t Look Away

In a time of such political, economic, and social upheaval, it’s unsurprising that many of us are overwhelmed. We read the news, then retreat from it, unsure how to process the problems that abound or be part of potential solutions to those problems. It’s easy to feel fearful, cynical, even helpless. But one of the real dangers — in addition to nuclear war and weaponized white supremacy — is that we will retreat into our own little worlds, turn inward, immerse ourselves in the relative comfort of private issues.

Importantly, for the many Americans who are acutely vulnerable in this moment, this isn’t even an option. Dreamers are on the front lines — exposed and relentlessly, necessarily, pursuing their legal right to live in the country they call home. Black mothers must contend, every single day, with sending their children into a society that has proven itself brutal to black children over and over again. For these Americans, and many more, there is no retreat.

For those of us who have the luxury of dealing with the news of the day on a more abstracted level, there is a temptation to look away. In order to stay sane, we claim, we must do our part (the PTA bake sale or the church canned food drive or even the pro-immigrant rally), but then absolve ourselves of responsibility for everything and everyone. We might even call it self-care.

My biggest heroes are women who don’t look away.

Just out of college, Rosanne Haggerty found herself working in a shelter for runaway youth. As she watched the revolving door of young people come in and out, she asked her supervisor, “Why aren’t we finding these kids housing?”

His answer: “That’s not what we do.”

“But that’s what they need,” Rosanne thought. A MacArthur Foundation Fellowship recipient, she has spent her life ending homelessness, in part by getting disconnected social service agencies within cities to sit down together in real time and eradicate redundancies in their processes for getting people into permanent housing. It’s not the sexiest stuff in the world, but it’s incredibly effective; her organization’s 100,000 Homes Campaign trained communities across the country to find homes for 105,580 homeless Americans in just four years.

She gave a commencement address last spring in which she made a convincing argument for taking responsibility for that which may not seem like it falls within your mission statement — personally or organizationally:

“To take ownership of what happens here means to see things that are broken and urgently need fixing, to move toward the problem even if you don’t know what to do, to trust that you will discover what you need to do.”

Brenda Krause Eheart was an academic studying child development and the foster care system. When the crack epidemic in Chicago exploded, she noticed that the number of children in the Child Protective Services system tripled within a matter of years. Tired of just studying the suffering, she decided to take a radical step to end it, founding Generations of Hope, which would become Hope Meadows. It is an intergenerational community with a purpose: Families who have adopted children from foster care co-locate with senior citizens who commit to serving as surrogate grandmothers and grandfathers. Communities modeled on Brenda’s original vision have popped up throughout the country. People are hungry for this kind of village life, where some of the country’s most vulnerable can nurture one another, rather than being seen as a liability or burden. Brenda is interested in subverting the idea of vulnerability entirely.

These women, my personal heroes, refused to pass the buck on the problems they were witnessing. They took them personally. They committed to studying and serving, flailing and persevering.

Not looking away, by the way, is not to be confused with thinking you have the answer to other people’s problems. That, as I have written about extensively, is a sin worse than thinking you have no place being part of the solution.

Neither of these women is the kind who purports to save anyone. Instead, they are both fierce and humble. They know that ideas are a dime a dozen and that real, long-term change requires solving for local suffering and then getting really smart about how to shift whole systems through partnership. They do countercultural work without being obsessed with how countercultural it is. They conscientiously create the world they know is possible. They take personal responsibility for that vision. They will die trying.

That’s how I want to live. Even in, and especially in, these fearful, complex times.±

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